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September 17, 2012

It's Robots vs. Humans with the Future of Space Travel on the Line

When I was in college at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, I worked at a catering company. One of the biggest thrills I had in my life came when I was working a party at the National Air and Space Museum. I had the opportunity to clear the glasses of Senator John Glenn of Ohio, a childhood hero of mine. Getting that close to a famous astronaut was a thrill for me, as I have always wanted to travel in space, and Glenn, Armstrong, Aldrin and the rest were idols to me when I was growing up. Part of me wonders if children today feel the same way about the Curiosity Rover. And that curiosity (pardon the pun) gets at the crux of a new dilemma for NASA’s future: whether to invest its precious budget in humans or robots.

There is no denying how significant the Curiosity mission was for the future of NASA and space exploration. There’s also no denying the role that human astronauts, from the Mercury missions to the Space Shuttle voyages, have played in the history of space travel. But NASA is working on a fixed budget and it needs to decide what role humans will play in the future and what tasks are better suited to robots.

Astronaut image courtesy of Shutterstock

While approximately $5 billion of the agency’s proposed $17.7 billion 2013 budget will be dedicated to robotic science and development, many NASA executives feel that the space program will need to rely on human/robot collaboration as it moves forward. "The human-robotic interface is going to be key to our success now and in our future," said Robert Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "You've seen the robotic devices we use to support astronauts in space. It's absolutely phenomenal."

Human settlements or outposts on the moon, Mars or elsewhere will need robots who can mind the fort while astronauts are gone, for example. And, from a scientific perspective, humans can perform more complex experiments with the aid of robots. While a team controlled Curiosity’s Mars-walk from a room on Earth, future astronauts will be able to command robots on the surfaces of planets while in orbit. There are even possibilities of Iron Man-like robotic exoskeletons as exploratory tools.

"Curiosity is controlled by people but is smart in its own right," said James Garvin, chief scientist for the science and exploration directorate at NASA Goddard. "It is a forerunner for what we could do with people."

Space exploration has always been about both people and technology, blending people who had “the right stuff” with cutting edge spacecrafts and equipment. So the future looks to have more of the same, bringing together human ingenuity with robotic capabilities to take the space program as far as it can go – to infinity and beyond, perhaps…

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Edited by Rachel Ramsey


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